By Iran Review
By Davoud Ahmadzadeh
At last, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Mursi, who is the first democratically elected president of Egypt following the fall of the country’s former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, has managed to overtake rival presidential candidates introduced by secular parties and the military council. However, he is facing serious challenges both inside and outside the country. Inside the country, he has already faced and managed a tension with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) over Mursi’s edict to restitute the country’s Majlis al-Sha’ab (lower house) and restore president’s legal powers.
On the outside, he is faced with serious challenges over how to interact with regional and international powers. In the meantime, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as two age-old regional rivals, are following developments in Egypt with much concern because both countries consider close ties to Cairo as a power tool which will help them to guarantee their political and economic interests in the region. From the viewpoint of Iran, recent developments in the Arab world, especially Egypt have provided Tehran with an opportunity to play a more active role in that country and also to promote bilateral interactions. Tehran believes that election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate in Egypt can make fundamental changes to old power equations and introduce a new behavior model for power games in the region. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, which has been constantly trying to pass itself as a source of unbridled support for Sunni Muslims, is scared about possible change of power equations in the region in favor of Iran.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt used to be strategic allies before the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, which acted in unison to protect the West’s interests. Also, as two conservative Arab states, they played a unique part for stabilizing Israel’s superior power in the region and for the facilitation of the so-called peace negotiations in the Middle East. Therefore, the main implication of the collapse of Mubarak’s regime for Saudi Arabia is emergence of a security threat in the region. In the meantime, after the Egyptian seculars failed to win the presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood climbed the political power ladder, Saudi Arabia assisted by the West, has been trying to preserve its traditional influence in Egypt and prevent further growth of radical tendencies in the North African country. The Saudi Arabia’s power tools are evident in the election of Salafi figures in Egypt who managed to come after the Muslim Brotherhood by getting 25 percent of parliamentary votes. Saudi Arabia has also played a special role in economic development of Egypt by granting economic aid and facilitating employment of Egyptian workers on its soil and can still continue to play that role.
When the current situation is considered from this viewpoint, it will be easier to explain difficulties with which Mohammed Mursi is faced for adopting an independent policy and cutting relations with such totalitarian regimes as Saudi Arabia. Therefore, Mohammed Mursi, as the first Islamist technocrat president and despite his election-time promises, has taken a more practical approach to foreign policy matters and international interactions. Moreover, although for a short period of time, the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi official almost came to blows over certain demands of the Egyptian people, and differences soared so high that Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in Cairo, both countries know that they cannot remain distant for long.
Choosing Riyadh as the first destination for Mursi’s foreign visits and his reluctance about accepting invitation of the Iranian officials can be explained with due attention to the following issues.
1. One of the main demands of the Egyptian people was improvement of economic conditions and reduction of poverty in addition to energizing the country’s development following the revolution in January 2011. During election hustings, a major motto of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate was narrowing the class divide, promoting trade, and providing better employment conditions. Of course, in view of wide political rift in the Egyptian society following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the widespread economic crisis and pervasive poverty have not loosened their grip on the Egyptian people, but have even got worse. According to the latest figures released by the International Monetary Fund, Egypt is one of the poorest Arab countries, which needs extensive international aid in order to get rid of its current economic problems. At present, the West is undoubtedly grappling with its most serious economic crisis in years, which has stripped the United States and the European Union of necessary financial capacity to send more aid to Egypt. Therefore, economic needs of Egypt under current dire circumstances can only be met by Saudi Arabia and other wealthy countries of the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is the sole country in the region which can provide employment opportunities for the Egyptian workers. Therefore, Mohammed Mursi will have, at least in the short term, to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia in order to attract more foreign investment.
2. After his presidential win, Mohammed Mursi has tried to follow a special policy which will help him to offer a moderate image of himself to the West and other regional countries in order to prevent escalation of disputes and differences with former allies of Egypt. To do this, he has emphasized on his commitment to international obligations of Egypt and contracts sighed under the former regime in many of his speeches. Even Mursi’s presence in Saudi Arabia has been considered as indirect reaffirmation of Camp David Accord and his effort to avoid confrontation with Israel. Therefore, a combination of domestic and foreign threats in both political and economic fields has practically prevented a fundamental change in Egypt’s foreign policy under the Islamist President Mohammed Mursi. This trend will force Egypt to adopt an open-door policy by welcoming all kinds of international cooperation.
3. Saudi Arabia is willing for regional stability, which is largely dependent on good interaction with other major regional players like Egypt, to remain unchanged. On the other hand, Iran’s regional clout has concerned the Saudi kingdom. Such concern combined with Saudi Arabia’s perpetual suspicion of Iran’s purposes has caused Riyadh to show certain reactions in order to change the regional power equations. Undoubtedly, possible closeness between Iran and Egypt and promotion of their regional role will increase Saudi Arabia’s sensitivity. Therefore, Riyadh has been trying to make Cairo understand that further expansion of relations between Egypt and the kingdom and continuation of Saudi Arabia’s economic aid will depend on lack of improvement in Cairo’s ties to Tehran. Perhaps, Mursi’s “yes” to Saudi invitation and his temporary distance from Iran is a result of such concerns and considerations.
4. The new generation of the Muslim Brotherhood had started a political and ideological game even before entering the power game and aiming for the government. The modernist members of the Muslim Brotherhood are mostly advocating the civil society and political participation of all groups in the future government. Therefore, despite the conflict which exists between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army as well as secular figures, Mohammed Mursi has invited various political and military figures to do their part in the power game. Some of those forces are close to Saudi Arabia and distant from Iran and can one way or another impose their concerns on Mursi. As a result, domestic conditions in Egypt will make Mursi stick to the legacy of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
5. It seems that despite presence of the Muslim Brotherhood at the apex of the power pyramid, there are still many stumbling blocks on the way of improvement in Tehran – Cairo relations. The situation in Syria and the two countries’ different approach to it as well as the issue of security arrangements in the Persian Gulf region are major challenges on the way of restoration of political ties between Iran and Egypt. Therefore, although participation of Mursi in the forthcoming meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Iran will be a positive step for the improvement of bilateral ties, it cannot necessarily lead to resolution of all the existing problems.
6. Forced by regional and international requirements, the new Egypt will have to maintain its old links to some Arab and Western states, at least, in the short term. However, given the country’s influence in the region as well as high military power and its role as a center for theorization in the Arab world, Egypt will be able to adopt a more independent policy toward the region and the Islamic world when it gets rid of the existing economic problems. Egypt has had a constant claim to the leadership of the Arab world and has one of the most powerful armies in the region. Therefore, conflict and confrontation between Cairo and Riyadh will be inevitable in the long run. The conflict and confrontation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not remain limited to the issue of the leadership of the Arab world, but also will extend to religious matters. The moderate version of Islam promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood is by no means compatible with the extremist Wahhabi tendencies of Saudi Arabia.
7. Instead of taking hasty measures to improve relations with Egypt, the Islamic Republic should focus its regional diplomacy on efforts aimed to foil common plans by the West and Saudi Arabia to depict Iran as a threat to the entire region. Due to importance of Egypt in the region and its influence on littoral countries in the Persian Gulf, continued effort to increase cooperation with Egypt can institutionalize the idea of the possibility of détente between Tehran and Cairo and help both countries to realize that goal.
Faculty Member, Inter-cultural Studies, Islamic Azad University-Tehran